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What's the best studio set up for learning oils?

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

With so many new StudioTalk subscribers taking advantage of painting from home during lockdown, it's the ideal time to look at choosing the safest painting set up for use around your family.

We've always been committed to studio safety at the School , not least because after years of exposure to strong solvents in my day job, my tolerance to them now is very low.

So when students write to me about studio safety at home, I absolutely get it. With this in mind here's a quick primer on how to create the ideal safe home studio

Solvents and Mediums

Solvents the reason many people avoid oils but you can easily avoid strong ones by choosing to use modern mediums.

The classic solvent for oils is turpentine, a distilled pine resin which is both extremely volatile and can be harmful if used over time. Most new oil painters don't realise that they don't need to use Turpentine, and given that it is toxic, even experienced ones should know when to use it.

Turpentine is the strongest common studio solvent, and that's the key to understanding when to use it. If you work with natural resin mediums, such as traditional Dammar or Copal preparations then turpentine will have been used in their manufacture, and you'll need to use it in conjunction with them.

Modern mediums on the other hand, are generally based upon the synthetic resin Alkyd which not only does not need turpentine - but absolutely must not be combined with it, as it can 'burn' them.

Modern mediums use Odour Free Mineral Spirit (OMS) which is much less volatile - and therefore safer - than either white Spirit or Turpentine. Lots of brands exist, but as they all 'look' the same it pays to ensure you really are choosing a safe one. In the studio we use Gamsol as shown in this 48 hour evaporation test.

Within the first 48 hours of this test, approximately 94% of the turpentine and 70% of the mineral spirits had evaporated, and that means you'll be breathing it in as you work.

So rule one for a safe home studio, is to use Alkyd based modern mediums such as Galkyd or Liquin, because that means you can use OMS. I choose Galkyd because it is designed to be a base for making more specialist mediums (used on my Masterclasses), but either will work just fine for StudioTalk.


Most people don't realise that the pigments in paints are the thing that makes them safe or toxic, so watercolours are just as 'dangerous' as oils, but its easy to choose safer colours

Choosing a range of safer colours for StudioTalk is straightforward if you follow some general principles, but always bear in mind that any paint, in any medium is potentially toxic.

The most toxic colours in any paintbox are those derived from metals such as Cadmium , Chrome, Lead and Cobalt, so its very important to not ingest these, however they are essential to get the brightest, strongest colours in your work.

When using these colours it pays to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, and to refrain from eating whilst painting (sorry, that includes biscuits with your studio cuppa). If you take these simple precautions then you should have no trouble, but you can always wear disposable gloves if your style is very hands on.

If you know your way around a paint tube then check the label, some colourmen, such as Robert Gamblin user 'safer' versions of Cadmium which do not pass through healthy skin, and its always possible to opt for 'Hue' versions of colours made with combinations of cheaper - and generally less toxic - pigments.

As a rule of thumb is is always a good idea to choose a selection of colours rather than use everything you have, and this is called 'setting a palette'.

An Impressionist Palette of warm and cool colours.

A comprehensive list of palettes using safe colours for everything from Old Master painting to Contemporary Colourfield Abstraction can be found here

You can also find comprehensive lists of pigments and core studio notes (including how to make our standard mediums) on the private members resources areas when you join StudioTalk, as well as in my core notes for Masterclass delegates.

You can join StudioTalk now for just £2.50 per week and receive weekly demonstrations which you can paint along with our friendly art community, here

Beyond The Basics

Once you get the painting bug and want to do more then its time to invest in a decent easel, make a professional brush pot, large desk palette and install good lighting for colour mixing purposes. All of these topics are now covered in our online Simply Oils program, and you can find out more about studio safety for Schools by visiting our colourman Gamblin at

Thank you for subscribing to The Norfolk Painting School, and I look forward to painting with you soon.


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